Quartet No. 9 (Ars Nova String Quartet)

How can we explain Shostakovich's fascination for the gallop theme from Rossini's 'Guillaume Tell' overture?

He quotes it most openly in the first movement of his fifteenth symphony composed in 1974. He suggested then that the movement was to conjure up childhood memories of a toy store but this, like so many comments that Shostakovich made about his music, seems disingenuous1.

Wendy Lesser detects a further reference to the gallop midway through the third movement of the Fourth Quartet written in 1949; highly plausible because the Fourth Quartet is dedicated to Pyotr Vil'yams a close friend of Shostakovich who had been awarded the Stalin prize in 1942 for the set design to the Bolshoi's production of Rossini's opera2.

Now in the third movement of the Ninth Quartet composed in 1964 it is referred to again. Certainly its punctuated rhythm fits exactly into the jazz-like nervousness of this quartet. But what was it about the music that was so attractive for Shostakovich? Did it have a covert significance?3

The Ninth Quartet is the last of the personal quartets. The seventh having been dedicated to his first wife, the eighth arguably dedicated to himself, the ninth is dedicated to his third wife Irina Antonovna (née Supinskaya), a young musicologist who had worked at a music publishing house. The marriage was registered without much ado in November 1962.

The String Quartet no. 9 in E flat major, opus 117, and the Tenth String Quartet were written within three months of each other in the middle of 1964. Together they mark the transition from the central phase of Shostakovich's string quartets, to those of his final phase: the quartets 11 to 15.

Officially the Ninth Quartet was written between May 2nd and May 28th 1964 but its birth was not that easy. The first attempt began two years earlier, but apart from the key of E flat major, so vital to Shostakovich's ordering of scales within the whole quartet cycle4, none of that draft appears in the final version.

The quartet lasts about 26 minutes and has five linked movements marked:

  1. Moderato con moto, attacca
  2. Adagio, attacca
  3. Allegretto, attacca
  4. Adagio, attacca
  5. Allegro

If the key of the previous two quartets were associated with torment and tragedy respectively, the key of the ninth, E flat major, has happier connotations. It is the key which Beethoven associated with human heroism, his having used it in his Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica" and in the Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Emperor". And indeed, true to tonal protocol, the quartet is definitely more optimistic than the previous quartet.

But it is not only through their dedications that these three quartets form a set. Each of the quartets has movements which flow into each other without interruption. This sequence of consecutive and continuous quartets makes them unique in the whole of Shostakovich's output. Nevertheless the ninth anticipates the later quartets. It contains periods of silence and sparsity which will reoccur in later quartets. Thanks to Khrushchev's limited 'thaw' Shostakovich had begun to move away from traditional forms and was entering into a new, more experimental phase, as is evident in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Symphonies, composed about this time. His later quartets are full of slow music; packed with semibreves and minims; abundant in harsh gliding notes, biting emphatic chords and themes based on the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. And all these elements present in Shostakovich's final quartets occur in his Ninth Quartet. But the quartet also looks back; especially to the Fourth Quartet with its Klezmer influences. Compare, for example, the third movement of this quartet with that from the Fourth.

This is a wonderful work; rich, vibrant, in parts ecstatic; full of contrast; packed with counterpoint; demanding and effervescing with energy. It is complex both in structure and in details, and its interlocking motifs are reworked and reintroduced continuously throughout its five movements. The first four of these movements are short, about four minutes long, but the final fifth movement is over twice that length.

From the very beginning of the quartet Soviet listeners believed they could hear an extra-musical message. The first movement opens with the second violin playing an undulating accompaniment to the first violin. Shostakovich was well acquainted with Mussorgsky's opera 'Boris Godunov' having written an orchestration for it in 1939 and 1940 and the melody on the second violin reminded listeners of a theme associated with the monk, Pimen, in that opera. Pimen was the chronicler in Boris Godunov so was Shostakovich saying that he too was relating events? But if so then the first movement seems full of relaxed self-satisfaction and the second movement, an "Adagio", exudes an even greater sense of contentment.

The third movement marked "Allegretto", is a mad polka in F sharp. It starts with a long ostinato which is broken by fanfare-like passages played by the first and second violin. Indeed they are but derivatives of the familiar fanfare of Rossini's 'Guillaume Tell', a fanfare that he would most clearly quote in the Fifteenth Symphony.

Only in the more sombre fourth movement is there any sense of possible ill-being. Here before being interrupted by violent pizzicatos, the music recalls the Pimen accompaniment motif of the first movement but also the darker music that Shostakovich composed for Ophelia's insanity in the Lenifilm 1964 production of Hamlet by the director Grigori Kozintsev.

The final "Allegro" is itself divided into five parts, each demonstrating Shostakovich's mastery. The first part recalls the first movement and the second part the Ophelia motif of the fourth movement. The central part is a fugue which is followed by a restatement of the quartets themes. Finally a crescendo of almost 200 bars brings the quartet to an end. This intensive and turbulent movement, almost a quartet for itself,  represents not only the conclusion but the centrepiece of the ninth quartet. The movement is the jewel of the quartet, indeed it is one of the jewels of all the fifteen string quartets. Its concentrated excitement, vitality and energy, makes it the most exhilarating finale in all the cycle. Unlike the termination of so many other of his quartets there is no morendo here.

There is a jazz-like sense of the unexpected, of surprise about the Ninth Quartet. With Khrushchev still complaining about the nausea and stomach pain he had experienced on listening to a jazz concert organised by Shostakovich five months earlier it is as if the composer had decided, albeit covertly, to challenge fate and break free, galloping like Guillaume Tell to freedom.5

The String Quartet No. 9, so different from the popular eighth, is in no way its inferior. I prefer it to all his previous eight quartets and deeply regret that it is played so little in public.

The work had its première on 20th November 1964 at the Moscow Conservatory Malyi Hall where it was performed by the Beethoven Quartet (Dmitri Tsyganov, Vasili Shirinsky, Vadim Borisovsky and Sergei Shirinsky). The autographed score is preserved at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI).

Opening Image:

The information given in YouTube for this extract is that it is played by the Ars Nova String Quartet.


  1. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000), p.272. back

  2. Wendy Lesser, Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets (Yale University Press, 2011), p.102 back

  3. The following three extracts show Shostakovich's fascination with the 'Guillaume Tell' gallop. The first is taken from the first movement of the Fifteenth Symphony:


    The second comes from the third movement of the Ninth Quartet:


    The last, and perhaps most disguised quote, comes from the third movement of the Fourth Quartet:

    . back

  4. For a discussion of this order see the article entitled 'The tonal structure of the cycle of quartets'. back

  5. Shostakovich's contact with jazz was not only with the music but also with its performers. In 1971, seven years after composing this quartet, Shostakovich lay in a Moscow hospital recovering from a second heart attack. Amongst the people who visited him was Duke Ellington who was performing at that time with the Radio Moscow Jazz Orchestra (see A.H. Lawrence's 'Duke Ellington and His World'; p. 387 Routledge 2001). Duke Ellington and Shostakovich had something else in common: they had both been nominated for the Academy Award for the Best Original Film Score in 1962. Duke Ellington had composed the music for 'Paris Blue' and Shostakovich for 'Khovanshchina'. Both eventually lost to 'West Side Story' which took the Oscar for that category.
    (My thanks go to to the composer, Robert Carrington, for making me aware of Duke Ellington's hospital visit). back